Theology

The Bookkeepers Will Always Be With You . . . But They Don’t Have to Be

Often I take a manuscript into the pulpit. The preached sermon will vary. Below the post will be a link to the preached sermon.

Luke 15:1-3, 25-30

Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, we find it hard to believe you will erase for us what we will not erase for others. So, we find ourselves taking up our bookkeeping again and again. It may have been what the Older Brother did. But, it is not what the First Born of all Creation does for us. Remind us this day, again, that grace makes life both lighter and more purposeful. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

It was Jesus, after all, who said, 

“You will always have the poor among you.

Maybe Jesus was looking back to the words in Deuteronomy,

“there will never cease to be those in need on the earth.” 

Jesus words came as he perceived the disciples judged the woman who anointed Jesus head with expensive perfume. Matthew reveals the disciples were thinking the price of the perfume would have fed quite a few poor folks. Jesus does not dispute the command in Deuteronomy that may or may not have prompted the disciples to judge. But if you are inclined, it could well be that Jesus reply to the disciples,

But you will not always have me.

has the same sense in his response to Martha when she complained about Mary not helping in the kitchen. There is a better way than keeping books on others who do not live up to your expectations, your rules. Not only will the poor always be with us, it appears there will always be another group.

If there is another group that will always be with us, it will be those of us that refuse to put the books away. You know, the sort that always keeps your score for you? And, if I were a gambling person, I would wager many of us bookkeepers are of the first born variety, like the Older Son in Jesus crazy story. Think about it.

We first born types are the experimental bunch. Those of us that presented our parents with their first experience of parenthood did not have a clue they did not know what they were doing. But they were the parents. Parents make rules and level punishment for breaking those rules. We learn the rules early and often. Even though we may glimpse grace from the rigidness of those rules on occasion, we tend to internalize that the world is made up of rules. We go to school and this is reinforced. We learn about stops signs and speed limit signs and our suspicions that the way to order our lives is by rules is confirmed. We may talk back, break curfew and run a stop sign, but when it all came down to it, our parents were more Moses and we were more Israel. Only after our siblings were born did we learn how easy it was to change those laws. Just be born second, or third, or . . .. One of the hardest things for we first born types to do is let go and realize that just because it was a rule for us, did not mean that our parents did not learn from their first experimentation. The repeated and reinforced vision that the world is about keeping rules leaves and left us with a legalism that is hard to shake. Having become parents ourselves, we learn to look back with some measure of sympathy. We cannot slight them for their lack of experience before having us. However, we tend to look with a critical eye at our younger siblings to see if they keep the rules as well as we think we did.

It often shows up in the playful complaint – “We never got to do what [insert the name of your sibling] is getting to do at that age.” I know, I have heard it too. After the first experiment in parenthood, Dads and Moms make adjustments. If too many rules are hard for children, think about the parents keeping up with them. It is not uncommon to reduce the number of rules for those born after. 

Think about what happened with Israel. After the 10 commandments it seems a good idea to some to develop a code of about 613 rules to live by. Their story is like ours would be. If we have trouble with ten, who thinks we could sustain 613. Tensions always existed between those who kept the law and those who didn’t. Even worse, a group was raised up within their people group that reminded the people of the most important command. By the time we get to Jesus, he knew we needed it simple, to the point. Love God and love others, though his idea of loving others included our enemies. He may have pointed to a simpler code but he set a higher expectation.

Simpler – two commands – and an increased scope only proved that we could not keep the rules. We still don’t too well.

We older siblings have it written like sharpies marked into the books of our experience that those who followed us should reward us for paving a smoother way! If you are like me and your youngest sibling was born enough years removed to be nearly raised as a first-born only child, you secretly wonder who kidnapped your parents. Someone gave them a legalism laxative! See, you will always have those sibling bookkeepers with you!

Sibling rivalry rears its head when the Older Son discovered the party going on. After all to read his response to the invitation to come to the party, is like hearing the airing of grievances. It sounds like a typical first born. Can’t you hear it? “After all he did to this family.” Remember, when the Younger Son requested his inheritance it benefited the Older Son. How soon he forgets. He received his inheritance at the same time the Younger Son asked for his. It does not take much imagination to think the Older Son stewed at the prospect he would be left to take care of all that was left to him without the aid of his younger brother. If that was not enough, it was a double whammy when the Older Son learns the Younger Son returned having partied all his inheritance away and is now the featured guest at a party thrown by his father. Maddening I tell you!

Whether or not you are the first born, surely you empathize with the Older Son. He never left. He remained faithful. He did the work. What’s more it is clear that the Older Son thinks the book he has kept on his brother in contrast to his own book should give him the right to criticize. He likely thinks he should have been consulted since the fatted calf would have been his. 

Some things never die. And that is my first point.

The only figure in the story that does not die is the Older Son. Look at it again. When the Younger Son asked for his inheritance it was to wish his father dead. Dispossessing  himself of all he had the Father gave everything to his sons.The death of the Father gets the story rolling. Yes it is a type, a sign, of death. The Younger Son realized that he was no longer worthy to be a son so that his very standing as son was gone. He reckoned himself dead. The fatted calf, innocent, became the festive feast. Only the Older Son did not experience any type of death, figurative or otherwise. 

Our book keeping dies hard. Even though in Christ our need for these books die with his death, we find ourselves from time to time keeping book on everyone else in order to justify our own books. Or, put another way. We like it when there are others who live up to God’s standard less than we do. It makes us feel better about ourselves. Smug. And, it seems the Older Son is full of smug. Surely you can hear the Pharisees level the charge against Jesus. It comes with that tone we all have heard. It is the sound of coming guilt, of impending shame. You are not as good as we are. If some things never die in us, in the way we look at others, it should not be a surprise to find this smug attitude present in and among Christians and even in churches as we look at others. Sometimes it does not need to be said. It is often felt. 

Tommie texted me the message on a church sign. We do often wince at some of the messages that get displayed. The sign read,

We come to church to hug necks, not wring them.

Many people feel like they have been wrung out after having run the gauntlet of comments that sound more like the people in church have been keeping book on you. It takes many forms. Rather than, “It does my heart good to see you,” we re-introduce ourselves. We draw attention to absence by asking, “Where have you been?” Little do we know just what has been going on. But, it is enough to give pause to coming back after feeling wrung rather than hugged.

Some things need to die. And that is my second point.

Our book keeping, that is what needs to die. Our failure to put away our books after having been crucified with Christ, dead, and buried and raised to walk in a brand new life only serves to illustrate how difficult for our egos to let go. We so need to have control. We fool ourselves into thinking we are free only to suffer the greatest rule enforcer – our ego. Somewhere we got the idea that keeping the rules sets us in better standing than all others. Just ask us. And here is where it gets dicey. It is in an honest assessment of our book keeping that we realize just how lousy at it we are. Now we won’t tell you. We don’t want anyone to know. So, we keep a second set of books – one set for us and one set for those around us. Give us the chance to point out how you are not keeping a good book and you can be sure we will. The Older Son.

If there is an attitude that will surely undermine the Gospel, the Good News message, carried in the bodies of those of us trusting Jesus it will be the mixed signal that in fact we are trusting our books more than Jesus. This story, this parable of grace is taking aim at those of us who think Jesus too pious to hang out with those whose books are all in the red. It is for us who think ourselves better for the books we have kept on ourselves appear better than those people.

Who cannot feel that?

Given the reality of grace, we hurt ourselves. And that is my final point.

The Father learns that his Older Son refuses to enter the party. Just like he did with his Younger Son, the Father goes out to the Older Son. It is there he makes the appeal. The Older Son is affirmed in his faithfulness. He is applauded for his work. He is reminded that all the Father has is his. We are not given what the Older Son decides after the Father makes an appeal. But it is clear that the grace extended to the Younger Son has also been gifted to the Older Son. Yet, the Older Son refuses to die. That is, the very measure he has used to give himself solace in comparisons to his Younger Brother fuels his anger and he is left in our vision standing outside the party. He only hurt himself.

But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.

Grace is received. And, grace is an ethic by which we who have been made alive in Christ live. If grace does not compel a response then it is not grace that has grasped us. Standing outside, refusing to eat with sinners and prostitutes, determined not to go to the party is a sure sign that bookkeepers will always be with us. 

But . . . They need not be.

Living in Sin: A Conversation with Jason Micheli

“I forgive you.” We generally think those words follow, “I’m sorry.” The Good News of the Gospel is that God’s, “I forgive you,” comes first. That is how Jason Micheli describes Grace. God’s one-way love.

Many couples at one point or another have reached for a book on marriage to help negotiate those difficult periods. Reading with a highlighter in hand pages of these books are scourged for the Holy Grail of marital success. Lists are made. Habits are rehearsed. Often these to-do’s become a greater burden than imagined. Frustration becomes the norm.

What if the better way to look at marriage is to consider it a parable for the love God has for the Church? For you? Micheli takes us on just such a journey. Equipped with a reprieve from stage-serious cancer Jason breaks open our defenses with self-deprecating humor, gut-wrenching episodes of fear and uncomfortable discoveries so that his encounter with God’s grace becomes fuel for a book we all need.

Today on this episode of Patheological, Jason comes on the podcast to talk about his new book. I suspect you will pause the interview and click over to purchase yourself a copy. Friends and family members may come to mind and you could buy a copy to give away. For pastors who happen on to this post or the podcast, let me encourage you to consider this a resource in your work with couples and others who could use a window into God’s grace that could well be the place where their lives are turned around by the Good News words, “I forgive you.”

If you find the podcast helpful, share it with your friends. Share it with your pastor friends as well as folks you know involved in leadership that touches on the pastoral. Also, consider heading over to iTunes, login, search for patheological and give us a five-star rating and a kind review.

Chains of Grace: A Conversation with Rick Davis

We are all addicts. Amidst a culture bent on positivity, Karsten’s maxim could not be considered good news. He did not back down.

Let’s give Karsten his conclusion. When we do we admit that we are all at the same time captive. At some point, these circumstances, addicted and captive, will lead to incarceration. When a person has served his or her time in prison, what next?

Dr. Rick Davis is my guest on this episode of patheological. I met Rick in 1985. We have been friends ever since. He is also my mentor. After serving as a preacher, pastor and denominational employee since his days in high school, Rick is now the Executive Director for Chains of Grace.

We recorded this conversation during Holy Week. I had hopes that it would post that week. Ministry responsibilities take precedent over my side (not) hustle. I am glad to post it today as I recently read about a survey that indicated Americans experience stress at greater levels than those in any other Country. You could say we are captive, even incarcerated, by forces that lead to all sorts of poor decisions. So, you may not have been in prison like those with whom Dr. Davis and Chains of Grace serve, but be sure we are all looking for those that will walk with us once we discover we have been set free.

After listening to the podcast click over and support Chains of Grace. Rick notes more than once in the podcast all the ways you can help. You may also want to subscribe to the Chains of Grace podcast, Re-Entry. These short episodes highlight the stories of those whose lives have been changed by God’s grace.

If you find the podcast helpful, share it with your friends. Share it with your pastor friends as well as folks you know involved in leadership that touches on the pastoral. Also, consider heading over to iTunes, login, search for patheological and give us a five-star rating and a kind review.

Seculosity: When Religion Leaves the Building, A Conversation with David Zahl

Are you spiritual but not religious? Maybe you are religious but not spiritual. What do those categories even mean? Are we always going to find ourselves in an Inigo Montoya moment, “You keep using that word . . . “

Religion observers and Christian leaders have for some time been offering explanations for a decline in church attendance in the West. Some contend we are experiencing an end of Christendom, a period where Christianity played a socio-cultural role in nearly every area of civic life. Others viewed the shift as a move away from religion altogether. New descriptions like the Nones and Dones have become new sociological categories used when conducting surveys of the religious habits of Americans. Is that too narrow?

Meet my new friend David Zahl. His new book, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What To Do About It, offers a different perspective on the religiosity of Americans. It is not that his idea would not have explanatory power in the West or even other parts of the world. But his personal context is the United States.

One of my friends uses the phrase to describe his departure from Christianity, “I left the building.” If you are a literalist you may miss the layers of this self-description. I have contended that some leave the building without leaving the Faith. After reading David’s book, I am left wondering if Religion has left the building. And, if it has, that is a good thing.

Christianity may be classified, categorized, as a religion. But, I would argue, at its core is anti-religion. That religion has left the building should be good news for the Church, for Christianity. Here I use Religion as a set of rules to live by. Christianity may be, and certainly has been, used or practiced by some as a Rule of Life. Doing so makes of Christianity the very thing that Jesus came to liberate human beings from. Bookkeeping according to a set of rules is not grace at any level. Submitting to a new set of rules for life is merely exchanging one capricious task master for another. Jesus offers something different – grace.

If you have not been persuaded by my little blog blurb to head over and order a copy of Seculosity, give our conversation a listen. Then, I hope you will get your copy!

David Zahl is the director of Mockingbird Ministries and editor-in-chief of the Mockingbird blog. Born in New York City and brought up elsewhere, David graduated from Georgetown University in 2001, and then worked for several years as a youth minister in New England. In 2007 he founded Mockingbird in NYC. Today David and his wife Cate reside in Charlottesville, VA with their three boys, where David also serves on the staff of Christ Episcopal Church. His first book, A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll,appeared in 2014. Most recently, David co-authored Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) with Will McDavid and Ethan Richardson. Even after all these years, he’s still mourning the end of Calvin and Hobbes (and hoping that Morrissey and Marr will bury the hatchet). His favorite theologian is probably a cross between Johnny Cash, Flannery O’Connor and his brother Simeon.

If you find the podcast helpful, share it with your friends. Share it with your pastor friends as well as folks you know involved in leadership that touches on the pastoral. Also, consider heading over to iTunes, login, search for patheological and give us a five-star rating and a kind review.

Why Makes Justice So Controversial?

Oklahoma incarcerates more people per capita than any other State in the Union – men and women. Legislators work to reform our justice system. The gears turn slowly. Part of the issue turns on how we talk about justice.

Last year, a group of Evangelicals, some from my tribe of Southern Baptists, developed what is referred to as the Statement on Social Justice. A list of affirmations and denials, accompanied by a list of Scriptures, has been signed by a nearly 11,000 people to date. The SJS, a shorthand for the document, took center stage in a segment at the recent Shepherd’s Conference hosted by John MacArthur Jr., one of the initial signatories. Some on the panel had signed the Statement while others had not. Even among hosts and guests, it was clear there was an underlying point of contention, if not outright division.

What is it that makes justice so hard to discuss for Christians, particularly many Evangelicals? Justice, for some philosophers, is the un-deconstructable subject. Yet, listening to some Evangelicals one wonders if it is not destructive. It certainly has proven contentious in online exchanges be it blog posts or Twitter exchanges. There are intimations, if not outright assertions, that a focus on justice obscures the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

One sure way to come off dismissive is to refer to your opponent at a Social Justice Warrior, SJW for short. Take it a step further and accuse your interlocutor of Cultural Marxism. Game Over. The related labeling and acts of ascription leave us with more than a few Inigo Montoya moments. You keep using that word . . . . It appears to be quite satisfying to go in search of someone, on your team, that will give the label or ascription your preferred nuance. Now you have found your authority and can claim intellectual high ground. We call that insider baseball. Why not take up a source that appears to have not dog in your internecine squabble. Take this piece from Andrew Lynn. I have yet to see Lynn locked in a Twitter battle over the SJS.

Maybe it would be good to tak up the testimonial of someone who actually admits to being a full-on Marxist. Here is a piece, albeit a little wonky at te close, that provides an existential experience with Marxism. Haykin clearly understands many throw around Cultural Marxism the say way they use to throw around the word Liberal. It was more to incite than interrogate.

If a person takes the time to write a blogpost alleging error, maybe it would be good to look at the issue using a greater breadth of sources than simply those that confirm an existing bias. It could be one of the most Christian things to do.

The recent combination of articles and videos prompted me to invite a group of friends, all Southern Baptists, and relative nobodies, to consider what is going on, even getting done, in these internecine debates. This first part of our discussion offers a critique. We will get together again to offer some constructive ideas in a future episdoe.

If you find the podcast helpful, share it with your friends. Share it with your pastor friends as well as folks you know involved in leadership that touches on the pastoral. Also, consider heading over to iTunes, login, search for patheological and give us a five-star rating and a kind review.